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“Somos Ticos!”

After coming back home from Mal Pais for another couple of days, we packed our bags for our first international excursion – to Bocas del Toro, Panama.  Bocas is an archipelago in northeast Panama.  We first drove to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and spent a night in Puerto Viejo before crossing the border early the next morning.  We’d done our research on the border crossing; it seems some have had it easy, others have had nightmare experiences.  Fortunately, ours was pretty simple.  We drove to the Costa Rican side, Sixaola, and parked at a long-term parking lot for eight bucks a day.  From there we walked to the tiny immigration office, filled out our paperwork, got our passport stamped, and began the somewhat nerve-wracking walk across the bridge connecting the two countries.  The bridge is an old railroad bridge that is in dire need of repairs – there are plenty of holes big enough to slip all the way through. On the other side, we had to go through Panamanian immigration and customs.  In Panama, like Costa Rica, you have to show proof that you are leaving the country in the form of a bus, boat, or plane ticket.  We didn’t have any of those because we drove to the border.  We’d read that they would also accept a receipt from the long-term parking lot.  When I showed my receipt, however, I was promptly told that this was only for Ticos.  I haven’t crossed many borders in my life, but I think it is fair for me to go ahead and say that in general, border patrol/customs agents are not very friendly people, nor do they have much of a sense of humor.  This Panamanian was no exception.  I promptly replied with a smile, “Somos Ticos!” (“We are Costa Ricans!”)  He didn’t find that the least bit humorous as he just held up my USA passport and stared at me expressionlessly.  I went on to explain that we live in Costa Rica and have applied for our visas, etc.  Begrudgingly, he let us through without buying bus tickets out.

Next was a quick stop in customs then into a taxi with three other travellers.  For $10 a person, we took an hour ride to Almirante where we then bought ferry tickets for $3.50 a piece to Isla Colon, the main island in Bocas del Toro.  The highlight of the taxi ride for Torie was seeing a man walking down the road with half a cow thrown over his shoulder.

Home near the ferry in Almirante

Home near the ferry in Almirante

“Half a cow” is not a hyperbole for a man carrying a lot of beef – the man was literally carrying half (yes, just recently sliced in half) of a cow on his shoulders.   The highlight for me was not seeing this man and his half of a cow. The ferry was a smooth and more scenic (in the traditional sense) ride to Bocas Town, then another boat taxi ($1 each) to the island next door where we would be staying for the next three nights. Bocas del Toro is an absolutely amazing place; it is what you think of when you picture Caribbean Islands.  The waters were unbelievably clear and filled with brightly colored fish, coral, and starfish.  Our most eventful day in Bocas was the day we went on a boat tour with two other couples staying at our same hotel.  Our boat captain Leroy picked us up at 8:30 and first took us toward Dolphin Bay, but we never got there because we came across the dolphins before we reached their usual home in the bay. A few pictures of the dolphins, and it was off to a few snorkeling spots and a lunch break in between.  The snorkeling was great- quite a bit better than anything we’ve seen in Costa Rica.  IMG_1459The vibrant reefs and clear, calm waters made for perfect conditions.  We finished the tour with a trip to the beach and some more photo opportunities of sloths hanging in the trees of an uninhabited island.  We made it back to the hotel  around 4:30 – not a bad tour for $20 each.

We had a great trip for many reasons.  The obvious ones being the new, beautiful landscape, wildlife, etc.  Another great part of our trip, however, was the people whom we were with.  Our guide was interesting enough, but he became even more entertaining the more beer he had throughout the day.

Starfish

Starfish

He was a guy who’d seen and done much in his life, including being a tour guide and working for the massive Chiquita banana farm that surrounds the Costa Rica-Panama border on the Caribbean coast.  He had all kinds of great stories about both tourists he’d met and about his own life and family.  We also got to know the other people on our trip, who were staying at our hotel.  Being on vacation in a place that attracts so many travellers creates a unique atmosphere.  How often if you were on vacation in the U.S. would you meet four strangers in your hotel and go on a daylong excursion with them the following morning?  One of the highlights of travelling for us is getting to meet both locals and other travellers.

Overall, our vacation has been everything we’d hoped it would be.  We got to see not only what is sure to be one of the most scenic places in the world for beach lovers, but also a whole new culture and way of life.  Costa Rica is clearly different from the USA, but Panama is so much different from most of Costa Rica – even the little we saw of it.  We’ve seen extreme poverty in Costa Rica, but not nearly on the scale we saw it in Panama.  It was a constant reminder of how fortunate we are and of how we need to find ways to make the most out of the gifts we’ve been given in life by helping others.

The past month has been remarkable, but I have to say, it feels good to be “home” again.  I am not sure when it happened, but somewhere in the last couple of months we’ve gotten very comfortable here in our new home and new life.  Not so comfortable that it will become a permanent option for us, but comfortable enough that we look forward to coming back here to relax and recharge after being out and about for weeks on end.

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Red frogs on Red Frog Beach

Red frogs on Red Frog Beach

December 17th was the last day of the first semester of school for us.  Since the weather is so perfect here right now, our school has a bit of an extended break for the holidays.  We’ve had a month off of work, and we have taken full advantage of our first extended vacation.  We boarded a plane for the States the 18th and spent a week in Nashville and a week in Indiana.  We’d been out of the country for about five months, and it was a bit of a strange feeling being back home after that much time.  The biggest adjustment came on the roads – we actually had to stop at all red lights and stop signs, pass only in designated areas, and wait until the light turned green.  I had to actually remind myself not to swerve around slow cars in residential areas on two lane roads.  Making the long drive to Indiana, however, was so easy! Driving 75 mph on highways that were sometimes three or four lanes wide! I felt like I was Jerry on the episode of Seinfeld when Kramer paints over the lines to make the lanes wider.  It was also nice to get some good beef and Southern cooking!  We spent as much time as possible with friends and family, but the two weeks seemed to go by way too fast.  It felt like no time before we were boarding the plane back to San Jose.

A couple of days after getting back we were on the move again – this time to the Southern Nicoya Peninsula and the towns of Santa Teresa, Mal Pais, and Montezuma.

The roads in this region are notoriously horrendous even for Central American standards, so the easiest way to get there is by a ferry that leaves Puntarenas, a port town on the Central Pacific.  It was just under a two-hour drive to Puntarenas, an hour ferry to Pacquera, and a rough two-hour drive to Santa Teresa where our vacation rental was.

Ferry from Puntarenas

Ferry from Puntarenas

The roads in the area lived up to their reputation and then some.  Granted our car has a bit of a shake and a rattle on the best of roads, but this was in a different ball park than our driving experiences in the Central Valley.  You know the cartoons when someone is driving a car and it falls apart, and the driver is left holding the steering wheel as the rest of the car falls to the ground? I was sure that was going to happen at any moment on the rutted out gravel that leads to Santa Teresa and Mal Pais.  The roads didn’t improve much in town – no pavement, no gravel, just dust. This was a trip on which we were fortunate to have bought a car with four-wheel drive, which was necessary to even make it up the “road” to our cabin.  The view from our house to the water below was worth the off-roading, though.

View from our house in Santa Teresa

View from our house in Santa Teresa

All of the area was worth the somewhat difficult traveling.  The lack of good roads has kept development to somewhat of a minimum in the area.  There are plenty of small hotels/hostels, restaurants, and surf shops,  but there is little else – a nice change from the crowded streets of the Central Valley. Like many of the small beach towns here, there are no chain restaurants or hotels.  Maybe our best dining was at a small soda that was set up in front of a house just down the road from our house.  The owners built a makeshift wall in front of their house and built a small restaurant in their front yard.  We were the only people eating there, and I guess out of a courtesy to us, the son of the family who served as busboy and DJ changed the music.  The Spanish music stopped and then we heard the familiar sounds of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and George Strait.  As I looked up as “I’ve Been Everywhere” started playing, the boy looked back with a grin across his face.  It was perfect timing to hear a little bit of home after feeling like we had to leave the States too soon the week before.

Mal Pais and Santa Teresa are on the western side of the peninsula while Montezuma lies on the eastern side.  We’d heard about an impressive waterfall in Montezuma so we decided to make a day trip over and check it out. Since we’ve been here we’ve seen tons of pictures of waterfalls, and we’ve been itching to get to one.

Montezuma Waterfall

Montezuma Waterfall

Montezuma’s didn’t disappoint.  The waterfall was an awesome sight to see, and the cool water in the pool below offered a nice reprieve from the heat.  Many times in Costa Rica we have found secluded places to enjoy nature in solitude – not here.  The falls in Montezuma were more of international watering holes from backpackers from all over the world.  Really, the whole area, both sides of the peninsula, was somewhat of a hippie haven.  Everywhere you looked were dreadlocks and tattoos. I don’t know what caused this area to become labeled as the “it” place for young backpackers, but somehow it did, and they flock there.  It’s definitely not a knock on the area because the hippies don’t bother anyone, but it is interesting because the area is pretty tough to get to.  The guidebooks all rave about the “laid-back vibe” of the area, but we haven’t found many beaches around that aren’t laid-back.

Another interesting side-trip we took was to Cabuya Island, near Montezuma.  Later in the month we visited beautiful tropical islands on the Caribbean coast of Panama with crystal clear water and colorful, life-filled reefs.

Cabuya Island

Cabuya Island

Cabuya Island is nothing like that.  This island, accessible by foot at low tide, is a cemetery for the local people of Cabuya.  I don’t think there are too many island cemeteries that you can walk to across a natural land bridge at low tide, so it was something we decided to check out.  It was truly an eerie trip, even in the middle of the day.  Because fishing is prevalent in the area, it looks as if the ocean has dried up revealing a rocky barren landscape with fish carcasses strewn about, being feasted upon by hoards of buzzards.

On the walk to Island Cabuya

On the walk to Island Cabuya

It wasn’t the kind of place we expected to see on vacation in Costa Rica, but it was a unique experience that I don’t think we will soon forget. I’m usually the last person who wants to go check out a cemetery, but this is one I’m glad I visited.

Overall, it was a great trip.  The house we rented was perfect, the beaches were awesome, we got a couple of chances to snorkel, and we saw some new sites that we haven’t had the opportunity to see in Costa Rica yet.  I don’t think we would stay in Santa Teresa again, though.  It’s not that we didn’t like the town because we did, but it would be much easier to stay in Montezuma which is much closer to the ferry, and, therefore, a much easier trip from the Central Valley.  Be sure to check back in the next few days for a blog on our trip to Bocas del Toro, Panama!

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Well, we’re a little over five months into our two-year adventure.  As we near our first trip back to the States, it is strange to think about the time that has passed since we’ve been here.  When we think about the last time we were home, it feels like an eternity ago.  When we think about the first day we arrived in Costa Rica, however, it feels like it was just a couple of weeks ago.  Then, we start to think about all we’ve done in these last five months – and it is pretty remarkable.  As we get ready to pack up and head home for a couple of weeks, we wanted to reflect on some of our most memorable experiences.

Favorite town/place we’ve visited:

This is a tough one because not only have we seen so many beautiful places, but for such a small country, Costa Rica is unbelievably diverse.  You could be standing on a beach with nearly white sand and crystal clear calm water, then travel a couple of miles down the road and be standing on a black sand beach looking out at ten foot swells. It’s not just the beaches that are diverse.  It is only about a 60 mile trip for us to the beach, but in those 60 miles, there is over 5000 feet of difference in elevation creating extremely different landscapes and climates.

Cahuita - Caribe Sur

Cahuita – Caribe Sur

With that being said, my favorite location so far is the Southern Caribbean (you can see our detailed post about it here: Caribe Sur ). It may be slightly cheating to choose this whole area, but the towns are so small and close together, I think it counts.  The Southern Caribbean of Costa Rica as we see it includes Cahuita, Puerto Viejo, Punta Uva, and Manzanillo.  This was our favorite because of the picturesque jungle lined beaches, wildlife, and the mix of culture and privacy.  In Puerto Viejo you can find as much culture as anywhere we’ve seen in Costa Rica: At night in town it’s impossible not to hear the thumping reggae coming from the numerous bars.  On the other hand, it is also amazingly easy to drive (or bike) a few miles out-of-town and find your own private paradise on a completely secluded stretch of beach.

Most scenic place that is not a beach:

I thought it was only fair to recognize a place that is not on a beach because there is so much more to Costa Rica than just the sand and surf.  Our choice for scenery inland has to be Orosi.

Orosi Valley Lookout

Orosi Valley

Coffee fields don’t sound all that impressive, but looking at them in perfect rows lining the Orosi Valley and the surrounding mountain sides is amazing. This little village is nothing more than a small farm town with a few hotels that can’t be seen from the road, but is a worthwhile day trip for any one staying in the Central Valley.

Biggest adjustment:

This one may be a bit obvious: the language.  Torie and I have started Spanish lessons and are making some progress, but we have a long way to go.  When we travel to the beach, it’s hardly a concern because nearly everyone there speaks English because they cater to tourists.  Where we live, however, it is rare to meet someone in the neighborhood who speaks English.  Interestingly enough, language wasn’t an easy choice here.  It is hard to put into words what driving is like on these roads, and it almost overtook language as our biggest adjustment.  When we go home next week, it will be very hard to resist the urge to drive like a Tico and pass cars at will or have to stay inside designated lanes or even drive in a straight line – pot holes here make that an impossible task.

Biggest accomplishment:

I’m not sure I could narrow this down to one specific event, but I would say it has been the fact that we haven’t refrained from doing anything we’ve hoped to do.  No matter how bad our Spanish has been or how unsure of ourselves we’ve been, we have just done it anyway, whatever “it” may have been.  Whether it was buying a car, travelling across country our second week here, or hopping on the buses, and occasionally getting lost on the buses, we haven’t let our lack of familiarity with our surroundings hold us back in any way.  We’ve figured the only way to learn and figure it out has been to just give it a shot.  So far, it’s worked for us.

Biggest surprise:

The biggest surprise for me has been how understanding people have been when trying to communicate with us.  We do not expect them to speak English, so we try our best in Spanish, and 9 times out of 10 they are extremely helpful and patient.  It is rare that a person seems irritated or frustrated by our inability to speak the language of the country in which we’re living.  I can only imagine how much different this would be if I were trying to live in the States with the same level of English. I think the perfect example of this would be getting our driver’s licenses.  I don’t even want to think about how the already grumpy DMV workers would be in the US if I walked in there to get a license and didn’t speak English, but here it was never an issue.  We tried our best to speak Spanish, and they tried their best to speak slowly and use a lot of gestures.  Overall, it was a surprisingly smooth process.

Biggest disappointment:

The lack of uniquely Costa Rican food. Everywhere you go you can get an order of french fries or fried chicken.  Don’t get me wrong, I love fried chicken, but there are not many authentic Costa Rican dishes.  We’ve had “Olla de Carne” (literally pot of beef), but it’s just beef stew.  We’ve had gallo pinto (literally spotted rooster), but it’s just fried rice and beans.

An especially good casado with trout (not a common casado dish)

An especially good casado with trout (not a common casado dish)

Yeah, I know there is more to it, and it does taste good, but at the end of the day, it is still rice and beans.  In terms of food, I am grateful for the abundance of cheap, delicious fruit, fresh fish, and good bread, but I am talking more about actual dishes.  Casados are cheap and filling, but they’re rarely anything to write home about.  If I had to describe Costa Rican cuisine, it would be a somewhat bland, non-spicy Mexican. One plus about living in Central America, many other cuisines are prevalent here – such as El Salvadoran pupusas – which are absolutely delicious.  I am pretty sure an artery clogs with each one I devour, but it is totally worth it.

Adventure we’re most looking forward to:

For me it is definitely going to Corcovado, which is a large, completely wild national park on the Osa Peninsula.  This is the one National Geographic described as the most biologically intense place on Earth.  There are no roads going here – you have to take a boat taxi. There aren’t even real hotels. Most lodgings are fancy, permanent tents set up outside the park.  I’m not sure Torie is sold, but she’ll come around, and I can’t wait.  Within the park there are day and night hikes, sea and river kayaking, snorkeling, fishing, and surfing.  All happening in a true, undeveloped, unspoiled tropical rain forest.

For Torie, it is Bocas del Toro, Panama and Arenal. When we return from the States in January, we are celebrating our 1 year anniversary in Bocas. Having a cabin over crystal clear water, snorkeling, and holding starfish seems like the perfect way to spend our anniversary. She is also excited to go to Volcano Arenal and La Fortuna with her family where we will go white water rafting.

This past week we had our first visitors. Jared’s dad, mom, and sister came to spend 10 days with us, and it was so nice to see and spend time with familiar faces. We hope they were able to relax and enjoy it as much as we did, but anyone who has been to Costa Rica knows that every trip out of the house is an adventure to say the least. They soon realized this the second they stepped in to Costa Rica.

After finding our family among the hundred taxi drivers yelling, we set off to get our rental car. What we thought would take 2 minutes, soon turned in to about 45 minutes. Yep…it took us 45 minutes to go 1 mile and they were introduced to tico driving where it is completely acceptable for the bus driver to make his own lane and go across an intersection when he pleases. Although they may have left with a few gray hairs due to the ridiculously insane driving tactics and bumpy roads, we had a blast.

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We started off by going to Manuel Antonio where we saw 6 macaws, over 25 crocodiles, 3 types of monkeys, and sloths. We relaxed by the beach most of they day and they had their first casado, a typical Costa Rican dish. On the way home from a relaxing day, I knew something had to give because it is very rare to go on a road trip here with little to no adventure or action. Whichever you want to call it. However, for most of us in the car, getting lost in downtown San Jose with no gas, thousands of people walking around, and cars breaking every traffic violation known to man while we are in bumper to bumper traffic, adventure was not the word we would have used. We had to promise Jared’s mom we would never go downtown again.

Despite the crazy drive home, we braved the roads again as we set off for Playa Samara on the Pacific coast where we spent 3 amazing days.

ImageIt was supposed to take 4 hours, but it soon turned in to a 7 hour trip. Thank you motorcyclists for the extra bonding time in the car, but next time we would prefer to be on the beach. The motorcyclists were and still are protesting due to an increase in taxes. They are blocking off intersections, round abouts, and even the president’s house! Although we were all numb from sitting in a confined space so long, I must say it was worth it.

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We spent our Thanksgiving at an  absolutely beautiful and peaceful place. It is not much of a town, but it was perfect. Not to mention we had a sweet house where we were able to wake up to howler monkeys in our back yard.

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Our Thanksgiving dinner was non-traditional and we were perfectly ok with that. We went to an Argentinean steak house, and it was delicioso! That was the first steak we have had in 6 months. Jared swears he is eating beef every day when we go home in 2 weeks, but something tells me that may not work out so well.

 

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While we were there we visited 2 other nearby beaches, Guiones and Carrillo. Jared hung 10 and practiced his surfing skills while the rest of us tried to master boogie boarding. On the last day we went to Carrillo, which was a perfect ending to a great vacation. It is one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen since I’ve been here!

On our final day together, Jared put his dad to work since having to change a flat tire on the way home from Samara and teaching him to drive like a tico was not enough work. Although, I can’t say I blame him because we now have a fire pit! Sort of. It is still in the works, but is slowly coming together. We have to finish laying tiles around it, and since my dad and grandfather are both in the tile and marble business, I thought they would be so proud of our work…However, the further we venture in to the project I’m not so sure that is the case anymore. Oh well, it has been fun and I’m perfectly ok with sticking to teaching! :)

 

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Settling In

I know it’s long overdue, but I’ve finally gotten around to a new post.  In some ways the last couple weeks have been hectic, but at the same time I feel as though we’ve settled into a routine.  I know that sounds a bit crazy, but that is how life here is: a bit crazy.  What have we been doing since the last post? Finding a new house, having parent conferences (eight hours worth of them in two days…), visiting the hot springs in nearby  Orosi, watching an old-fashioned Costa Rican rodeo on a private farm, mastering driving the stick on the mountain roads, and celebrating Torie’s birthday at a quiet beachfront hotel in Esterillos.

I’ll start with little anecdote that really sums up life on our side of town.  I’ve said before we live in this in-between area: ten minutes west takes us to the hustle and bustle of San Pedro, a large suburb of San Jose and home to several universities, and ten minutes east takes us into farm land.  Another town, Tres Rios, is also close by – about a ten to fifteen minute drive depending on traffic, be it cars or livestock.  Despite the at times frustratingly under-signed one-way roads, Torie and I like Tres Rios.

Orosi Valley River Costa Rica

River in Orosi, Costa Rica

For Costa Rica it is a big city, but for us it still feels quite small and is easily navigable once we learned which streets run which way.  Anyway, we were on our way there one night, and as we swerved down the steep, curvy mountain road that leads to town, I said to Torie, “It’s a little more nerve-wracking driving at night because you never know when you will come around a corner and there will be a broken down car, people casually walking, or cows in the road.  Because of the steepness and constant turns of the road, visibility is limited (not to mention the complete lack of street lights).  Not thirty seconds later we turn a corner and eight cows are walking up the other side of the road.  It’s not like we were driving down some gravel back road - we were on the bus route.

Orosi Valley Lookout

View from the lookout near Orosi

This may sound like a once-in-a-million coincidence, but it really isn’t. That is just how it is here.  Avoiding cows is sometimes as common as motorcycles driving on the sidewalk to get around traffic or being run off the road by buses.  There is never a dull moment on the streets.  Surprisingly enough, driving has started to feel normal – it’s going to be hard to follow “normal” driving rules again when we come home for Christmas.

A highlight from the last month was a day trip we took to the Orosi Valley.  If you recall, this is the same place we went before and had the car troubles.  This trip, however, went much more smoothly.

Coffee plantation Costa Rica Hot Springs

Walk to the springs through a coffee plantation

We’d heard there was a place on the river with natural hot springs created by the nearby volcano, so we thought we would take a trip and try to find them.  The springs are pools of water along side a good-sized river that is otherwise freezing cold as it comes down out of the mountains.  We found the springs after a five minute walk or so off the gravel road that leads to Tapanti National Park.  The walk took us through one of the coffee plantations that we traveled past a few times on our last excursion to the area.

The springs weren’t hot-tub hot, but they were warm.  We spent a couple of hours there along with several locals who were also there.

Another highlight of our last month was two weeks ago when Torie and I celebrated her birthday at the beach.  Her family rented us a room/cabin on the beach in Esterillos Este which is about thirty minutes from Jaco or two hours from our house.  This was a nice change of pace for us after a couple trips to Jaco and one to Puerto Viejo.

Hotel in Esterillos

View from our cabin in Esterillos

Esterillos Este isn’t a town or even a village: it is just a few houses and hotels along a quiet stretch of the Pacific.  No one was trying to sell us cigars or zip-lining tours; there were actually few other people around the first day we were there. Not that we don’t still feel like tourists at times and doing the tourist activities, but this was a nice getaway for a couple of days.  We couldn’t have asked for anything else from the hotel either.  As you can see from the pictures it was about a thirty yard walk from our cabin’s front door to the sand.

Last but certainly not least, we’ve decided to move.  For many reason we started looking for a new house a couple of weeks ago.

Playa Esterillos

Playa Esterillos

To sum up the reasons, we felt we could find a place that would be better for us for less money.  We aren’t completely unhappy with our current house, but it’s not perfect for us – that was a risk we took renting a house before we ever saw it.  As with our car, we didn’t have to look long before we lucked into one that does seem perfect for us.  We’re planning to sign the contract today and should be moving in sometime in the next month, maybe sooner depending on when a new renter moves into our current house.  We wanted a house in the same area because we’ve grown to really enjoy the neighborhood, and we found one that is not far off the same road on which we live and sits in the middle of a large coffee plantation.  We don’t have good pictures of it yet, but I’ll post some as soon as we get them.

The countdown is on until our first visitors come! My parents and sister will be here in three weeks.

Orosi Valley Costa Rica

Orosi Valley

The plan is to spend a day in Manuel Antonio, a couple around here in the Central Valley, then head to Playa Samara and explore the Guanacaste region for a few days.  Torie’s family has a trip planned for Spring Break, and a couple more visits are also in the works.  We couldn’t be more excited to see some familiar faces!

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